What Do You Do When You Can’t Shut it Down?

The 2001 sit-in by the Harvard living wage campaign had something in common with Occupy Wall Street: neither shut its target down. At Harvard, we occupied the main administrative building, Massachusetts Hall, for three weeks demanding a living wage with benefits for all campus workers. While top officials scurried out within hours and didn’t come back, their secretaries reported to work every day, as did lower-level administrators in other buildings. What good is an occupation if it doesn’t prevent the occupied from functioning? We worried about that, but we shouldn’t have.

Sit-down strikes are the only nonviolent takeovers that can reliably make everything stop, and that is why they are so powerful and rare. Most occupiers over the last century did not have strategically ideal relationships to the places they seized. They were members of the public planting themselves at lunch counters, voters sitting in school board offices, students sleeping in wood-paneled conference rooms, and now people on waterproofed mattresses in a privately owned plaza two blocks north of Wall Street. In all of these cases, the challenge has been to find forms of disruption that are attainable and useful, and to make the occupation the basis for activity that is not merely disruptive.

At Harvard, the living wage campaign had organized for over two years before we sat in. We had relationships with workers and unions, and we had won widespread student and faculty support. We knew the campus well enough to realize that most people backed our demand but would not support us if we physically removed administrators and clerical workers from their offices. Alienating most of the campus was not an option: we were trying to organize public opposition to the administration, not drive the community into administrators’ arms.

If we couldn’t prevent university officials from functioning at all, we could disrupt their work. Our presence in the building kept the top leadership from coming to campus, and more importantly, the media and public attention that we focused on them made it impossible for them to do anything but respond to us for three weeks. The president could not appear at public events, beg money from donors, or put on a show for prospective students without facing public rebuke. Administrators’ email accounts, voicemail boxes, and fax machines overflowed with messages about labor policy. University lawyers, press officers, police, and low-level deans became crisis managers unable to attend to routine responsibilities.

When we first entered the building we’d split into groups, and one group took the bathroom. Access to the bathroom meant we could turn to concerns beyond holding the space. Our reliance on this kind of disruption meant that what happened outside the building was as important as the action inside. We debated university officials on national television and hosted everything from civil disobedience trainings to religious services to barbecues outside the building. The campus dining hall workers folded the sit-in into their contract campaign, alumni launched a solidarity sit-in at the Harvard Club of New York, and 400 faculty members published a full-page ad in the Boston Globe calling for a living wage. When President Neil Rudenstine made an appearance at a campus arts festival, he was chased back to his chauffered car by whistling and singing protesters.

While the sit-in disrupted the normal functioning of the university, it also had the constructive effect of creating a new political environment on campus. Workers and unions that had been acting without allies attained new power and public legitimacy. The janitors’ union, which had been in shambles thanks to miserable leadership, began a process of internal reorganization. Students, faculty, workers, and community members found themselves in a position to discuss their ideas of justice and their responsibilities to one another.

Ten years later in New York, the organizers of OWS have organized disruption brilliantly. They have brought enormous crowds to Lower Manhattan, spurred parallel protests in other cities, and used social and traditional media to reorient national political discussion. The open-ended nature of the occupation permits useful forms of escalation. When the organizers started, sleeping in a park was most disruptive gesture they could pull off. One month later, Lloyd Blankfein had to cancel his speaking engagements for fear of public humiliation and OWS supporters are planning nonviolent actions to disrupt the functioning of banks. Shutting down Wall Street is a long way off, but the gyre is widening.

The occupation’s greatest achievement, though, has been its transformation of public discussion. Those who denigrate the crowd at Zuccotti Park as incoherent fail to recognize the protest’s constructive role in fostering discussion of social and economic issues. Most people in the United States have little experience reasoning about what’s wrong with our society and what a better one would look like, and inevitably people bring all sorts of ideas to the occupation. The varied, contradictory, even bizarre claims that the protest elicits do not mean that OWS is only valuable as a disruptive act that might facilitate the replacement of Ben Bernanke with a new and better technocrat. The crowds assembling in Lower Manhattan exhibit a profound desire for discussion, participation, and simple recognition that ordinary people exist and matter. We would be fools to ignore this opportunity to build a more democratic, deliberative, and informed political culture.

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